Looking back to the eighties

Like its television sequels, the film This is England begins with a short montage of newsreel and television footage from the period. We are shown elements of popular culture: the puppet TV presenter Roland Rat, the Rubik’s cube and Pacman, BMX bikes, the band Duran Duran, an aerobics video. Yet much of the focus is on images of social conflict and unrest: the miners’ strike, skinheads on National Front marches, the Brixton riots, the Greenham Common protests. The sequence begins with Margaret Thatcher, and we also see Thatcher and Ronald Reagan side by side. A major focus here, and in the montage sequences later in the film, is the Falklands War: there are images of amputated legs and body bags that were apparently deemed too upsetting to be shown at the time. And the first image of the film itself is of a photograph on Shaun’s bedside table of his father in his uniform, accompanied by the voice of Thatcher from his radio alarm.

The montage sequence is deftly edited to a reggae/ska track, 54-46 Was My Number by Toots and the Maytals. The song was originally released in 1968, and was covered by the British reggae band Aswad in 1983, the year in which This is England is set. The lyrics refer to the lead singer’s time in prison, and are implicitly echoed by Combo when he dramatically appears later in the film. Yet the track, and some of the imagery in the montage, also prepares us for the film’s focus on youth culture – and specifically on skinheads and associated groups, such as the anti-racist Two Tone movement that arose right at the end of the 1970s. As we’ll see, there are elements of nostalgia, and even of glamour, here; but they are set within a decidedly bleak and dismal portrait of the effects of Thatcher’s policies on working-class communities.

Director Shane Meadows

Meadows has frequently been represented as a regional film-maker. He grew up in the ordinary market town of Uttoxeter, in the English Midlands; and with one exception (Somers Town, 2008), all his films are set in Midlands locations. While there are some rural landscapes (most notably in 2004’s Dead Man’s Shoes), these are rarely pastoral or picturesque. This is England was mostly filmed in Nottingham and in the port of Grimsby: almost all the action takes place in run-down public housing estates, derelict buildings and decrepit rented flats. As Jack Newsinger and Jason Scott have described, Meadows has quite pragmatically used the system of public funding in the UK, which (at least for a time in the 2000s) explicitly supported independent film production outside London. While this system has generally allowed him to retain a high degree of artistic control, it has also enabled his films to reach international audiences and win international awards. Yet these films clearly offer a very different version of Englishness when compared with the ‘heritage’ costume dramas or posh romantic comedies that are traditionally popular in global markets.

Like many of Meadows’ other films, This is England portrays a working class community that has effectively been eroded, if not destroyed, by long-term economic decline – and, more recently, by Thatcher’s aggressive dismantling both of the country’s industrial base and of its welfare state. Thatcher re-appears throughout the film, in further clips and montages, on radio and TV, and even in graffiti – ‘Maggie is a twat’. As in Meadows’ second feature Twenty Four Seven (1997), we see the demoralizing effects of unemployment, poor housing and welfare cuts, both on family life and on the wider community. Elements of traditional working-class culture are still maintained through institutions like the working men’s club (where Lol and Woody eventually choose to have their wedding reception at the very end of the TV series); but much of the sense of collective action celebrated in earlier representations of the industrial working class – from Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy to some of the social realist dramas of the 1960s – is all but gone.

Meadows has described This is England as ‘probably the closest thing to a political film I will ever make’. While it is obviously an interpretation of an earlier time, it also has some parallels with the period in which it was actually made. There are obvious comparisons between the Falklands war and Tony Blair’s war in Iraq; and by the time the last installment, This is England ’90, appeared, its images of decline seemed relevant once more as the effects of the Conservative-led Coalition government’s austerity measures began to kick in. Meanwhile, extreme right-wing politics and racism are still widely evident today; and the post-industrial decline of the 1980s has by no means been reversed.

As critics such as Vicky Lebeau and Paul Dave have noted, Meadows frequently uses the figure of the child as a focus for exploring the ‘social fallout’ and ‘dereliction’ of Thatcher’s Conservatism. Aside from This is England, children also feature centrally in A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and Somers Town, while older young people are key to Twenty Four Seven and Dead Man’s Shoes. However, Meadows’ children are not innocent, nor are they idealized: for the most part, these are not happy, carefree childhoods. Yet neither is the child a focus for pity. Poverty is ever-present, but it appears as a fact of life: this is not ‘poverty porn’.

Youth culture plays an ambivalent role here. As we have seen, it is flagged up in the film’s opening montage, and is central to the first half of the narrative. The grieving Shaun goes to school and is teased for his flared tracksuit trousers (which his father had bought for him); and the playground is full of the youth ‘tribes’ of the period – skinheads, rude boys, new Romantics. Woody’s gang, which he eventually encounters on his way home, are obviously ‘second wave’ skinheads (the originals date back to the late 1960s and early 1970s); but they are also mostly good-natured and affectionate rather than aggressive or threatening.

In a later sequence, we see Shaun’s mother taking him to buy a new pair of shoes: his attempts to come away with a pair of Doctor Martens (compulsory skinhead footwear) are thwarted. Nevertheless, Shaun’s initiation into the skinhead gang continues: the girls shave his hair, and Woody presents him with another compulsory style item, a Ben Sherman shirt. Complete with braces and rolled-up jeans, Shaun is given admittance to the gang: while he remains something of a junior mascot, he is congratulated on his transition from boyhood to manhood. Significantly, while Shaun’s mother is unhappy about the haircut, she is quite comfortable about leaving her son in the care of a significantly older group of youths. The following sequences – again accompanied by a Toots and the Maytals tune, Louie Louie – show a montage of the gang playing street football, jumping into the local swimming pool and generally horsing around. In what has become a slightly over-used Shane Meadows trademark, there are several slow-motion shots of them strutting down the streets, effectively asserting their ownership of the territory. There is also a long sequence where the male members of the gang, all clad in diverse forms of outlandish fancy dress, are shown on a ‘hunting expedition’, smashing up what remains of derelict buildings in a kind of energetic orgy of destruction.

These are enormously attractive sequences, which capture some of the pleasures of working-class youth culture in a way that is still comparatively rare in cinema. For Shaun, his affiliation with the gang comes close to restoring some kind of happy childhood. It offers him a new surrogate family in the wake of his father’s death; but it also provides a nurturing community, even an alternative to the traditional working-class community that has been lost to post-industrialism – however imagined that community may ultimately be. Of course, it’s a predominantly masculine culture: at least at this point in the wider narrative of This is England, the female characters are relatively marginalized.

As Tim Snelson and Emma Sutton have argued, this image of youth culture has some things in common with academic analyses of the time – particularly the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University. For these scholars, subcultural groups like the skinheads represented a response to social and economic decline, among young people who would otherwise have had little hope for the future. They offered a means of winning back some self-respect, if only through ‘style’ (fashion, music and other cultural symbols), and in the world of leisure rather than paid employment. There is undoubtedly a degree of romanticism here, both in the academic analysis and in the first half of Meadows’ film itself. Unlike the academics, however, Meadows resists the temptation to politicize his image of youth culture: if anything, it is more about escapism and fun than the kind of political or ideological resistance that CCCS critics were keen to identify.

Nevertheless, this affectionate, even glamorous, portrayal is eventually disrupted by the dramatic arrival of Combo, and his subsequent attempts to recruit the gang to his National Front politics. While Combo expresses utter contempt for Thatcher and what he sees as her pointless war, the ideology he espouses is implicitly seen as a consequence of her policies. As is shown in the film’s opening montage, Thatcher’s rhetoric came to focus on various kinds of enemies, both without (as in the Falklands war) and within (as in the miners’ strike). The popular racism of the National Front – which is most directly shown in the meeting that Combo brings his group to attend – is represented as a reassertion of pride, not just in national identity but also in a particular kind of working-class masculinity. The following sequences show how, having broken away from Woody and his friends, Combo and his ‘troops’ attempt to establish their ownership of the territory, intimidating Asian kids playing football and threatening a Pakistani shopkeeper. Here we have a direct echo of the previous celebratory images, as the members of Combo’s new racist gang (including Shaun) are shown walking in slow motion towards the camera, shot from below to emphasise the threat they pose.

If the film looks back to the eighties, then, it does so not with a rose-tinted nostalgia, but with some ambivalence. Meadows himself has been explicit about his attempt to ‘tell the truth’ about skinheads, and indeed to recover and even redeem aspects of skinhead culture. In an interview in Indie London in 2006, he described how he became a skinhead himself partly as a refuge from bullying. He apparently based the character of Woody on a boyfriend of his older sister:

[He] took me under his wing and taught me about the roots of the whole culture. He was a nice bloke who bore no relation to the stereotypical racist yob that people now associate with that time… I learned from him that skinheads had grown out of working class English lads working side by side with West Indians in factories and shipyards in the late 60s. The black lads would take the whites to blues parties where they were exposed to Ska music for the first time. This was where the whole skinhead thing came from – it was inherently multicultural. But nowadays when I tell people that I used to be skinhead, they think I’m saying I used to be racist. My film shows how right wing politics started to creep into skinhead culture in the 1980s and change people’s perception of it.

The gang in This is England is certainly identified with black music, and it is to some extent multicultural – although it only has one black member, and to that extent the film might be accused of tokenism. However, I’m not convinced by Meadows’ claim that racism was something that ‘crept in’ to skinhead culture only in the 1980s. The relationship between skinheads and black (African-Caribbean) culture was complex, and not all skinheads were racist, but racism was certainly prevalent among them in the 1970s – indeed, it was this that partly accounted for the emergence of the Rock Against Racism movement, and eventually Two-Tone music. It might be argued that Meadows underplays the significant emotional appeal of racism, and its centrality to skinhead culture – a centrality that remains, as studies of contemporary skinheads in eastern Europe or Russia, or indeed online, certainly verify.

By contrast, in This is England, racism and fascism appear to come from outside, in the form of the returning character of Combo, who has taken up these ideas in prison. They also appeal primarily to the ‘misfits’ in the gang. Apart from Shaun, Combo’s other followers are relatively marginal characters; and the key members of Woody’s gang clearly disassociate themselves from him. And of course, in the final images of the film, as the St. George’s flag sinks into the water, this is an ideology that Shaun (its central character) decisively rejects.

In some respects, the film might also be accused of personalizing politics, or seeking to explain political motivations in primarily psychological terms. In particular, there is an issue here that recurs throughout Meadows’ work, that of absent or ineffective fathers. Thus, it appears that Combo’s attack on Milky is motivated more by his jealousy of black people’s apparently nurturing family life – and in particular, of Milky’s ‘good’ father – than by any racial prejudice. Likewise, Sean initially joins the gang largely because he seems to be motivated by his disenchantment, and even his desire for revenge, at his father’s death. The National Front ideology provides him with a cause, even a rationale, that fills the gap left by his absent father. Combo represents a bullying, menacing form of masculine power, yet he also attempts to nurture Shaun; and in a key scene, shot largely in extreme close-up, Combo effectively steps in to take Shaun’s father’s place. Yet Combo’s emotional weaknesses eventually find expression in a loss of control, in his frenzied attack on Milky. Here again, there are echoes of Meadows’ other films: characters such as Darcy in Twenty Four Seven, Morrell in A Room for Romeo Brass and ultimately Richard in Dead Man’s Shoes all eventually lose control, exposing the almost psychotic underside of masculine power.

If the first part of the film might be accused of presenting a rather rose-tinted view of skinheads, therefore, this is clearly not sustained. I don’t think it would be fair to accuse Meadows of a kind of sentimental nostalgia, let alone of backward-looking conservatism. The first part of the film portrays the moment of subcultural pleasure and power with considerable verve; but the events that follow show that the moment is lost, and cannot be recaptured. We cannot return to a ‘golden age’ – however real or imaginary it may have been. Change and loss are inevitable. Indeed, as we shall see, it is these themes of change and loss – and the difficulty and complexity of our relationships with the past – that become the key preoccupations of This is England as it moves into television.


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